Milk and honey

February 27, 2009

Right, after bashing university students in my last post, here is a great piece by third-year journalism student Steve Carpenter. It’s a report of a speech given by Bob Satchwell, he of the Society of Editors fame. He sent it to HoldtheFrontPage, who I hope paid him properly for it. 

Now I’ve always felt Bob was too quick to defend the tabloids whenever they stepped over the mark rather than giving them the odd kicking that they clearly deserve, but I can respect his views and he usually argues a good case.

But this speech he made to students at Coventry beggars belief.

It may be a case of telling his audience what they wanted to hear – ie that their pointless three year course (sorry Steve) is likely to lead to a job and (according to the PG) that the ‘land of milk and honey’ will return to newspapers soon – but it’s such rose-tinted nonsense that it could have been written by one of the ‘owners’.

Now before you dismiss Bob’s claim as utter tosh, or choke at his statement that the downturn could be good for the press, read this other little gem from him first:

“There are lots of stories about journalists being made redundant, which hides the fact that there are lots of other journalists that have actually been employed. There are more journalists now employed than there were ten years ago.”

Marvellous. Well done Bob. What spectacular awareness of our industry you have.

To be fair, I suppose you could argue that stories about the Kent Messenger group slashing a quarter of its staff, Northcliffe, Johnson Press and others ‘centralising production’, the heavy cuts at Bristol… (I could go on but you get the point)….are taking the limelight away from the seven reporting jobs being advertised on Holdthefrontpage at the moment – a whole two of these are for trainees.

I was actually about to join the society this week – which funnily enough has just been complaining about a fall in subscriptions – but I really don’t think I’ll bother now as it seems to have become the official mouthpiece for the owners rather than editors struggling to get their ‘products’ out because of the lack of staff.

I tell you what Bob, I’ll send in my cheque as soon as this land of milk and honey returns.

Is journalism the new media studies?

February 25, 2009

There’s been a few interesting views recently on the training of journalists.
It follows the news that the number of applications to do journalism degrees has risen by 24 % this year – that’s more than 13,000 applications for courses starting in September.

It’s a frightening statistic given the state of our industry. Every day another paper is slashing jobs and centralising production.

Nick Davies (he of Flat Earth News) makes some interesting points about the quality of lectures.
He states: “A great many of them are genuine crap, taught by people who haven’t the faintest idea of how to do the job.”

I think he’s spot on – there are simply too many courses and some of them just aren’t good enough.

Eastern Daily Press deputy editor Paul Durrant goes further, stating that he isn’t ‘bothered’ about journalism degrees.

It saddens me but journalism degrees have become a populist, soft option. The media studies of noughties if you will (and having done a media communications and English degree, I know all about soft options).

Journalism still looks cool to outsiders – I’m sad enough to admit that my press card is clearly visible whenever I opened my wallet. And with the rise of the internets, news and information has never been more in our faces, so it’s not surprising that lots of young people are interested in the profession.

But the massive increase in courses is dangerous. Many are uncredited and I know of at least two which are taught by people who have never been journalists.

Lets get this straight. If you want to be a journalist, there is absolutely no need to study journalism at university. What is the point in a course that lasts three years teaching something which is 95% learnt on the job?

As Paul says: “I’m bothered about NCTJ qualifications – I’m bothered about vocational training. I’m looking for maturity, passion and confidence. In terms of currency in the industry, I need to know someone’s got 100wpm shorthand, that they know what a Section 39 is.”

Apart from the NCTJ qualification – which is in dire need of a major overhaul – I agree totally with this. You can have all the journalism theory in the world but if you lack the personality and the passion you’ll be a shit reporter.

A journalist needs some law, shorthand and local government knowledge before they get started properly. These can be picked up in a pre-entry course which lasts between four months and a year.
They also need work experience. As much as they can get.

As an editor and formerly news editor, I have dealt with many work experience types.
And without execption, those who had studied or were studying journalism degrees were poor. Many simply did not have the personality (you don’t need to be pushy, but a certain amount of drive and common sense is a minimum requirement) while others were vastly unprepared for the world of work, and particularly the news room.

But the most worrying and annoying were those who thought that three years in the classroom, a piece of paper saying they achieved a 2:1 or even a 1st, was proof enough that they knew it all already.

In reality, they know no more about the industry than the kid straight out of sixth form who has been doing work experience for three months, and far less than the kid who did a four month pre-entry course. Worse, they tend to pick up more bad habits which need to be beaten out of them.

It’s depressing looking at some of the comments made by the journalism students below Paul’s article. I feel really sorry for them as they’ve clearly not received proper careers advice.
I can see it now – they tell their guidance counsellor they want to be a journalist, so the counsellor hands them the list of journalism degrees.

If you want advice – email the editor of your local rag. Many of us (although not enough) will care enough about the future generation of hacks to respond. (You might need to email them twice though as we do get a bit busy).

A candidate with a degree in say English, politics or even philosophy, definitely has an advantage other applicants who don’t as it shows a level of intelligence, that they can stick something out for three years and of course generally universities help people mature.
However, if it’s a degree in journalism, then I’m sorry, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you send me a CV.

Who neesd subs anyway?

February 13, 2009

Sub-editors are “a layer that can be eliminated”, according to former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.

I’m going to ignore the comments at the bottom of the PG story which point out Roy’s own failings, and look at his arguments instead. And I haven’t found a copy of his speech, so I’m trusting the PG report.

First of all, Mr Greenslade suggests that journalists are now “highly educated” and can sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

I really don’t know where to start with this one, but I’m going to resist the urge to push my tongue into my bottom lip and make some incredibly un-PC duh noises.

Even though I am someone who can string a sentence together, I am always grateful for an extra pair of eyes. Afterall, even world renowned authors have their copy checked.

As a trainee hack, my writing was probably cleaner than most, but it would have been insane to let that naive 20-something write straight into the paper.

Actually, one of my district papers was that stupid. All my copy for the Smalltown Obscurer went straight on the page, maybe with a spell check if the sub could be arsed. And the hopeless editor certainly never read it.

To be fair it generally worked ok – but this was because it was my home-town where I knew practically everyone so took huge pride in my work.

Of course I made a few errors, but they were usually simple things which the sub or editor could have picked  up. I think it was incredibly unfair looking back that I had to carry the can alone.
But most trainee hacks go where the work is and don’t necessarily have the strong local knowledge.

Mr G also stated that “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”

That use of “of course” really winds me up.

The statement reminds me of the awful (but enjoyable) Judge Dread film (Stallone at his best) where these clones are created in a couple of hours, complete with all the combat skills of seasoned soldiers.

Does Mr G really believe that hacks come out of journalism college knowing everything they could possibly need to know?  Even though many believe they do, this is just nonsense “of course”.

Apart from law and shorthand, nearly all journalism is learnt on the job. Having a strong sub-editor who can talk a reporter through their mistakes and mock their ignorance is a vital part of creating a well-trained hack. Without the guidance of subs, particularly in a reporter’s formative years, the overall quality of reporting will fall incredibly quickly.

And I couldn’t let this point pass without looking at the “well-educated” reporters we have these days. At every paper I’ve worked, there have been one or two outstanding journalists, but these are always outnumbered (often heavily) by journymen, idlers, wastrels and charlatans.

I also know of a few reporters who can bring in some fantastic stories and have excellent interview techniques but can’t write very well. I’d much rather have a reporter like that and help them develop their writing than a handful of spoon-fed monkeys who write perfect prose.

Mr G argues that all of this isn’t ideal, but commercially it might be necessary.

Again, I just can’t agree with that. Poorly subbed writing can quickly damage a paper’s credibility. Readers will be less inclined to read a paper littered with spelling mistakes and errors, and a loss of readers means a loss of advertisers.

It may see saving on the wage bill in the short term, but it damages the product, and thus its commercial value in the long run.

Mr G also believes there are two types of sub-editors – those who work on local or natioanl rags to templates and the creative types who write Sun headline.

I have to wonder whether Mr G has stepped into a regional newspaper office in the past ten years.

Templated pages are used, but not all the time. Pretty much every page is created on the differing merits of the story, headline, pictures and other furniture.
While the front few pages of my paper always have the same shaped adverts, the pages certainly don’t follow the same rules every week and look very different.

Mr G then makes a point, perhaps contradicting his previous arguements, that it’s not that we don’t need subs, but rather we can hire someone for £1 an hour to do the same job in a developing nation.

The local knowledge is the strongest counter to that, but there are other arguments.

As an editor I imagine it would be very difficult to try and talk through what I want from a page over the phone. To do that when English isn’t the individuals first language would make it even tougher.

I can see a time when technology will improve and the role of the creative sub will be less  – say a programme which can put all the various aspects of a page together like a jigsaw and suggest several layout options – but we’re not there yet.

And I don’t believe there will ever be a time when copy does not need to be subbed, unless we’re happy to become a txt spk nayshun of dunderheads.

Centralised subbing – could it work?

January 22, 2009

With our industry struggling to survive death by a thousand cuts (actually, it’s probably much higher than that), centralised subbing is again rearing its head.

Johnson Press backed up it’s claims this week that it is a company which “bases itself on localness” by announcing plans to move subs of several weekly titles miles away from the communities they serve. It’s easy to get angry at the 49 jobs being axed, and to recycle the old “owners are killing journalism” arguments, but I have to say I can see some merits in centralised production.

The biggest mistake the owners are going to make is voluntary redundancies. To misquote The Wire, you can do more with less – but not if you lose your best poeple.

In my (limited) experience of voluntary redundancies, the first to leave are often those who will have no trouble finding new work – ie the most skilled. The owners should targetting the deadwood first.

I know several papers which have people on their payroll who have been moved sideways into made-up and pointless positions. I know of plenty downtable subs with a much lower skill-set than their colleagues, and harsh as it sounds, this is usually through laziness. Most of us have found time to learn new technology and pick up some digital skills – we should be valued more those who are happy doing things as they’ve always done them and can’t even do a basic cut-out.

Similarly there is less room for the reporter who just rewrites press releases or stories he’s been handed by newsdesk.There is plenty of unemployed, hungry talent out there and we no longer have to settle for journeymen.

But job cuts aside, perhaps the most useful thing centralised subbing can do is free up an editor’s time.

I believe a large bank of centralised subs working on various titles will need fewer bums on seats than before.

My biggest frustration as a downtable sub was the downtime, waiting for newsdesk and editors to get their arses into gear and make decisions/send us copy. You could argue that this was just poor organisation, but the fact is if there is always work to be getting on with, productivity will be much higher.

Obviously it’s important to make sure you still have enough staff as an overworked sub is prone to errors, but my point is that centralised subs are more productive.

Done properly (and we all know it wont be), there should be little need for an editor to get involved in production and more time to get involved in the news agenda. They could be free to guide reporters properly, set the tone and strategy of the paper, meet and greet the great and good. And of course time to check through each page properly and pick up any errors that the centralised sub without local knowledge may have made. But these are things which many editors are struggling to do as we are having to plough through pages as a priority.

 Speaking to a wise-old ex-colleague this week, he told me this is what an editor’s role used to be like.

I’ve only worked with one editor who had this old-fashioned approach (or more to the point had the time), and her paper was so much better for it. It was a fantastic product because she paid such close attention to the news content and got to know her audience. Of course there wasn’t enough people to do the rest of the work, so our quality of life suffered as we struggled to meet her very high standards.

Unfortunately I doubt I’ll be seeing any of my time being freed up anytime soon.

I know the “more with less” mantra won’t be thoroughly thought through. And I know I’ll be expected to keep churning out pages ahead of all my other duties.

Centralised subbing could work – but sadly it’s going to be more about improving profit margins than the news content.

And we’re off…

January 15, 2009

The Town Crier is dead. Long live the News and Crier.

After two days of pulling my hair out, slapping my forehead in frustration, tears from the ad-girls, a constant barrage of swearing, stupidily long hours and crap IT support (sounds a bit like a normal week to be fair), my relaunched paper finally hit the streets.

And I have to say I’m pretty pleased with it.

It’s bigger than my old rag with more news, more leisure, puzzles (well, a crossword) and even a weekend TV section (bit pointless really as it has no satellite).

I’ve got more resources too, or rather I have the novelty of some full-time reporters.

It was tough though, and due to the problems getting the archaic systems to work (my ‘new’ PC genuinely dates back to 2002), we didn’t manage to get started until Monday lunchtime. Pretty scary as the deadline was Tuesday night.

But we brave few (three of us) put in some long hours and managed to sub close to 40 pages, finishing at 9.30pm. Not too shoddy considering two of us didn’t know how to use the systems here and we had to manually type in all the new fonts as the style sheets don’t work.

And all that hard work clearly deserves some reader feedback. So imagine my delight when the first email I receive has the subject: “Boycoating your paper”. (Well it is a bit chilly at the moment).

To understand the nature of the complaint, the paper had a wrap to announce the relaunch, with the headline: “Have we got some great headline news for YOU!” (caps and exclamation mark were not my idea).

Below were PDFs of the final front pages of the former two newspapers – one with the M&S closure splash, the other about an armed robbery. A 40pt subdeck below explained that “we’ve combined your favourite local rags into one that’s even better”. Page 2 of the wrap details all the changes, complete with a lovely letter signed by me (I didn’t actually see ‘my’ words until the paper left the press).

Here’s a transcript of the letter:
On receiving a first copy of your News&Crier I was horrified to see the Headline reading:
Have we got some great headline news for YOU!  followed firstly by:  ‘M&S WILL AXE FOOD SHOP’   ‘Cinema terror as armed raider strikes’  and ‘Marina residents could lose homes’. 
It is an insult to all your readers at this very difficult time and not worthy of further reading for fear that the Editor may have overlooked something far more serious printed inside.
Good luck for the future!
Still, at least they signed off in a pleasant manner.

Christmas survival

January 2, 2009

This has to have been one of the quietest Christmas periods I’ve ever experienced news wise, probably not helped by the fact that for most of the past two weeks, the only people in the office have been myself and my deputy.

We just about survived the tricky festive season, despite having no run-up. Until Wednesday, December 17, we were under the impression that we wouldn’t be producing a Christmas or New Year edition. Then the powers that be changed their minds. Christmas is tricky enough without any features or follow-ups in the bag, but it was harder still as my freelancer had finished on December 19.

My part-time reporter has worked just three days since December 22, but somehow we still managed to do both papers, albeit not to the usual standards.

It was a smaller paper than normal, and I filled ten pages of news easily enough. The first three pages were proper hard news. Added to that were a couple of quickie features, a review of  the year and the rest was just re-worked press releases (with an extra quote or two) .

There was also the usual ents pages, a community round-up page – originally started as  a dumping ground for the most boring nibs, but actually proving very popular – and sport (reduced to three pages).  Not great, but it looks reasonable enough.

One of my rivals did an interesting Christmas edition, pretty much giving up on news for the week. They had a poster front page advertising pictures of local nativity plays. Pages 2, 3 and 4 were all police press releases about robberies – all of which had been in our paper and website the week before.

Then the next 19 pages were variations on the Jesus, Joseph and Mary theme as advertised on the front. And that was pretty much it.

I guess I’m a bit jealous that our own nativity coverage was poor due to the fact that we have only occaissional access to photographers. On the other hand, I was a bit annoyed that we’d worked really hard while they’d gotten away with a glorified picture supplement.

Still, their’s was more popular with our shared readers.

Anyway, next week sees the welcome return of a freelancer so we should be nearly back to the normal, or rather back to being understaffed as opposed to ridiculously understaffed.

Failing the new breed?

December 30, 2008

Some 48 per cent of candidates passed the NCTJ‘s National Certificate Examination last month, the lowest pass rate since April 2006.

Now I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the NCE, having seen some very talented journalists fail it and some truly awful ones pass first time – but this low pass rate worries me slightly.

I beginning to suspect that the pressures on the modern journalist are becoming so great, that editors, news editors subs and senior reporters are failing the new breed.

We can all whinge about falling standards, the ridiculous growth of journalism degrees and the failures of our education system to teach basic grammaer (couldn’t resist), but are we really doing enough to give them the support they need?

In my first job I had a news editor who despised me and I learnt very little. Fortunately at my next paper my new boss took great interest in what I was doing and really helped me improve my basic skills. At my next paper, a kindly sub took me under her wing and highlighted my language errors through a mixture of shaming me down the pub in front of my peers and her red pen over my raw copy (I am actually extremely grateful for this).

And in my current humble surroundings,  I have put in considerable effort to help my two former trainees develop. One of them passed the NCE with flying colours and was asked to test next year’s paper, while the other aced her mocks but left the paper before her final exams.

More recently I find myself resisting the urge to throttle my staff for daring to speak to me.

I suspect my change in personality is due to my increased workload. Nowadays I seem to have five sports and three news pages to sub, a sackful of letters to put into something approaching English, a shouting match with an arsey councillor and countless HR forms to fill in. Usually all before lunch.

Previously when a press officer wouldn’t answer a simple question or decided to take a public servant length festive period with five press queries outstanding, I’d patiently suggest ways for a reporter to work around them. Eventually the message would get through and the reporter facing a brick wall seeks a way round it on their own. Now I just want a reporter to get on with it and write the bloody thing already.

I’ve been lucky with most of the freelancers I’ve hired since losing my two full-timers as they’ve all been self-starters with decent levels of common sense. But I worry what sort of editor I’m going to be when I finally get some new trainees in.

On a slightly different note, perhaps one silver lining in this whole job-cull crisis is that I should be able to be a lot pickier when I finally do get to hire someone – and it’s been hinted at that this day will be coming soon.

Traditionally a small paper like mine can’t compete with the daily regionals, but then two years ago alone would regularly have 30 reporter jobs advertised. Today there are just three. And with all those who have lost their jobs, anyone hiring must be inundated with CVs.

It means I will no longer have to consider settling for the feckless student from a dodgy university who thought journalism sounded like a fun degree. Or giving a chance to the run-down solicitor/accountant/estate agent going through a mid-life crisis who has decided that they’d like to ‘write’ for a living.

Now when I’m employing, I’m hoping I will only have to look at those who have put themselves out to get work experience and articles published, rather than the layabout who thinks life owes him a living just because he studied journalism at university.

In contradiction to my earlier fears, I actually think I’d still relish hiring an enthusiastic unmoulded lump of clay.

Scraping the barrel

October 30, 2008

Well it’s Christmas Eve and I’m at work, so what better way to pass the time than to finally start this blog.

For those who don’t know me, I’ve been the editor of a free weekly newspaper (circulation 47,000 if you belive the distribution department) for more than 18 months.

Anway, here’s a potted history of my first editorship.

I joined as deputy editor but on my first day, the editor handed in his notice. I tried not to take it personally.

I was acting ed for six months. Despite having just two full-time reporters and one elderly lady who managed to cram in at least an hours work during her two days a week, I achieved quite a bit.  I was especially succesful in turning a very poor website around – with my figures for page views, uniques etc growing by several hundred per cent each month.

The bigwigs were suitably impressed and gave me the gig full time. It started off ok and I was even allowed to hire a deputy.

But in February things started to go downhill when I lost my pitbull of a reporter – lets call him Frank.

Frank delighted in savaging press officers, councillors, police officers and owners of small bookshops who didn’t want to comment on the latest Harry Potter release. He was a bit too fiery at times, but very effective. However, once he qualified as a senior, he left to go ‘find himself’ in Ethopia.

Naturally, he wasn’t replaced.

In July/August, my other reporter, lets call her Belinda, decided she’d had enough of doing the job of two people, and left for the golden streets of big London.

Again, she wasn’t replaced.

So since the summer, my paper has been  staffed by myself, my deputy, a lady of advancing years who does two days a week and various freelancers who didn’t know the patch. Bear in mind that I also have to sub five to seven pages the sport myself.

Last week (December 19), the last of my (mainly excellent) freelancers left.  Not only does my company have a recruitment freeze, it has now banned freelancers.

It has left myself, my deputy and the part-timer producing a three-edition weekly rag. 

Despite my best efforts – the quality of the paper has dropped somewhat.

There could be a glimmer of hope on the horizon though as my paper is in the process of being sold. The sale has dragged on for a couple of months now, and if it doesn’t go through I fear my paper will be closed. I also have no idea what to expect of my new overlords as they have been making some major cuts of their own recently.

Because of the sale, we’re also slowly being weaned from the nipple of our current owners. So for two months we’ve been unable to get a replacement print catridge, we’re having to supply our own notebooks and pens, they’ve stopped the recycling  collections and taken our water cooler away.

I’m still fighting the good fight, doing my best to get a paper out but it’s a desperate time. I am genuinely afraid for my job. However, I’m still proud of the paper we produce. It’s a long way short of where we should be, but it’s usually on a par with what our rivals produce, even though they have four times as many staff.

I guess my tale is very similar to many papers during this ridiculous financial crisis. The industry appears to be on its knees and the future looks grim for local journalism. But I believe there are enough dedicated individuals like myself still out there who are deluded enough to keep being exploited by the owners because we believe in what we do.